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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Humanitarian action can mask an imperial agenda by Anatol Lieven

An interesting piece from Anatol Lieven in yesterday's FT.

Financial Times, 21st August 2007

Humanitarian action can mask an imperial agenda

Anatol Lieven
Even western observers who criticise human rights groups for naivety or irresponsibility generally give them credit for purity of intentions; and of course, this noble character is indeed true of many groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But it is not always true, and western public debate would benefit greatly from a recognition of the moral ambiguities involved in some contemporary human rights advocacy.

The uses of such advocacy for imperial propaganda are alive and well in the US, and some of its allies, at a moment when America’s own actions are gravely undermining respect for US moral claims in the rest of the world.

This is especially dangerous given the rise of China, Russia, and other countries with different attitudes to the balance between individual rights, collective rights and state power. It is also worth remembering that the avoidance of unnecessary tension with the Muslim world is a vital western security interest. The moral absolutism characteristic of

human rights groups can too easily be exploited by chauvinist forces to block necessary compromises and co-operation with other states, even on issues wholly unrelated to human rights.

Yet on the other hand, western societies neither can nor should abandon their core commitment to the spread of human rights in the world, since this lies at the heart of our particular contribution to humanity in

general. The need in the west therefore is for a set of informal moral and intellectual criteria against which we can check particular western campaigns and arguments for value, sincerity and utility.

For today, as throughout history, what we now call human rights advocacy can also be used to feed agendas of hatred, arrogance and aggression.

More than 2,000 years ago, denunciations of the real or alleged barbarity of their enemies was a staple of Greek and Roman war

propaganda. In the 16th century, the Spanish used the atrocious habits of some of the American Indians to justify their conquest and dispossession. The Spaniards’ European enemies in turn used the “Black

Legend” of Spanish atrocities against the Indians as an excuse for attacking the Spanish, after which they treated Indians living in their colonies in exactly the same way.

This delightful spectacle reached its apogee during the heyday of western imperialism in the 19th century. The British denounced Russian and Austrian atrocities while starving and brutalising the Irish and others. The Russians wept crocodile tears over the Boers while

slaughtering the Poles. The Americans lectured everybody else while
conducting savage campaigns of their own at home and abroad.

All the western states used the barbarism of non-western societies as an excuse to conquer them for their own good. The echoes of this tradition can still be heard in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s statements that France has always stood for human rights, while herself never having committed

crimes against humanity – a claim that would come as a very considerable
surprise to France’s former colonial subjects. Yet amid all this hypocrisy, many westerners, including Christian missionaries, have also worked with sincerity, self-sacrifice and success to end many dreadful abuses.

Today, the problem of mixed motives and agendas is exemplified by the issues of Darfur and Chechnya. Western human rights campaigns on these issues have drawn much of their support from elements – especially in the US – that have not exactly been distinguished by their concern for

oppressed Muslim minorities elsewhere in the world, or for the wider interests of the regions concerned. Important sections of both campaigns have been characterised by utter one-sidedness; contempt for study of those regions; and an attitude to casualty statistics more characteristic of war propaganda than responsible advocacy. They also display an indifference towards the practical questions of how to achieve and maintain peace.

As Alex de Waal, Mahmood Mamdani and others have written, it is hard to resist the conclusion that anti-Arab and US imperial agendas are responsible for a considerable part of the focus on Darfur. Far too much US activism seems to be quite uninterested in the real requirements of

peace and development in Darfur, Sudan, and the region as a whole.

As far as Chechnya is concerned, while I know deeply moral people working on human rights issues there, I also have to say that as far as most US politicians involved are concerned, their overwhelming motivation is not sympathy for the Chechens, but hostility to Russia. If the Chechen insurgents had been subjects of a pro-western state, these US figures would have actively supported their ruthless repression.

Such negative motivation is both a moral and practical problem. As we saw with western support for the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan in the 1980s, an ostensibly moral agenda was in fact motivated by hostility to one side in a conflict, rather than genuine support for the other. This led to a rapid move to utter indifference and irresponsibility as soon as the immediate conflict was over.

By contrast, in the case of Bosnia and Kosovo, the fact that these territories border on the European Union and Nato compelled those organisations to make real long-term commitments to their peace and development.

These then should be the key questions for assessing the political and moral worth of given campaigns: Are they motivated more by sympathy or by hatred? To what degree do they involve real feelings of responsibility for the areas concerned? How far have individuals and groups involved in western campaigns demonstrated a commitment to study those areas and their problems, as opposed to merely striking moral poses?

Finally, there is the question of a readiness when necessary to condemn atrocities by one’s own country. After all, the enduring moral glory of the 19th century western campaigns against slavery and the slave trade were that these were western creations, which enormously benefited powerful western interests. Attacking them took guts and a readiness to sacrifice profits and careers.

But this kind of balance is not just a matter of morality, or courage, or even of credibility in the eyes of the world. An indifference to human rights abuses by western forces can also contribute to a vastly over-optimistic view of what those same forces can achieve through intervention in particular conflicts, and an equally vast under-estimation of the risks involved.

That is a lesson that we should have learned again and again in recent years, starting with the debacle in Somalia. Then again, how many advocates of western military intervention have ever themselves actually witnessed the results?

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow of the New America Foundation and author, with John Hulsman, of ‘Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World’ (Pantheon).

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